Truly seamless mobility

Expectations for remote working are rocketing, as the technology for achieving it gets better and cheaper. Facing global demands, companies and individuals must decide how available they want to be. Paul Fisher reports.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Right. I'm off moofing, but I may touchdown later. If not, you can catch me on the presence. For those not of the Facebook generation, what that actually means is: I may pop in later and plug in my laptop at an available desk. If not, I will dial in via the video-conferencing system.

The concept of mobile or remote working is hardly new and most companies have accepted that some workers - and the business, too - can benefit from time spent working away from the office. And, of course, the rise of cheap laptops and the ubiquitous BlackBerry have turned many employees into walking, talking always-on nodes on the corporate network - some more eager than others. The antics of poolside 'CrackBerry' users who just can't switch off are becoming a common holiday marvel.

'You can use it too much, but it's part of the learning process. You should be in control of it,' says Mike Shirley, brand and segment manager for business marketing at T-Mobile.

Maybe so. But whether we switch off or not, mobile working is increasingly hard to ignore. With mobile calls set to be permitted on aircraft, and sales of smartphones predicted to outstrip those of laptops within 18 months, this is one trend that isn't going to go away.

What's more, the new generation of school-leavers and graduates has expectations of the technology they should be using that are sky-high compared to only five years ago. These will change both the way people work and how they are managed dramatically.

'We demonstrated our TelePresence technology to some local schoolchildren,' says Bernadette Wightman, operations director for Cisco SMB, UK and Ireland. 'They weren't even impressed. They just expect it.'

Cisco TelePresence is the very latest high-tech, multi-screen video-conferencing system that really does - forgive the cliche - make you feel and sound like you are in the same room as colleagues on the other side of the world. A far cry from the scratchy, out-of-sync conversations and stuttering pictures that many have experienced as video-conferencing in the past.

The system is used by giants like Ford for the highest-level meetings, but Cisco is now working on models suitable for the SMB market. It is also bringing versions to the desktop, developing a company call system that will allow customers to dictate how they wish to be communicated with - voice to text or text to voice, even by video.

This will be developed for 'endpoint devices' - that's mobile phones and PDAs to you and me. Cisco is also working with Nokia to develop a phone that will have a TelePresence client built in, so mobile workers can join a conference from anywhere. Cisco practises what it preaches. 'Fifty-six percent of Cisco people's time is spent at places other than their office,' says Wightman.

Cisco is even experimenting with the virtual world of Second Life. Log on to this computerised cyberworld and you'll find Cisco Island, where jobs are advertised and seminars and training are available for employees - all without ever meeting a real person and without having to travel anywhere, except on the net.

But IBM is probably the corporate Big Daddy of Second Life, having held international staff meetings within the virtual domain. It even created ball-by-ball reconstructions of big matches from the Wimbledon tennis championships last year.

It is now experimenting with advanced mathematical models on Second Life to 'build' virtual sales consultants; yes, in the future, your contact with IBM may be via a highly sophisticated avatar that will get to know you personally - on your desktop.

This might sound far-fetched, but many other big corporations are also taking the potential of Second Life very seriously. It could be the next big way of reducing costs and making mobile working a truly global and seamless virtual affair. All with no pesky human sales execs to manage either.

'New companies will adopt virtual working more quickly,' says David Benjamin, CEO of BT Directories. 'Traditional companies have a blind spot when it comes to managing people.'

For its part, Microsoft has sponsored a corporate blog dedicated to mobile working ( Here, mobile workers discuss their moofed-up business lives - using Microsoft software, of course. Pop in for a latte at any inner-city Starbucks these days and you are likely to find it full of PDA moofing types holding impromptu virtual meetings. It's users of these so-called 'third places' (first is the office, then the home) that Microsoft hopes to capture. Unfortunately, while it has the lingo, it may not win the mobile technology war.

This is the applications battle that may bring the end of Microsoft's dominance, and at the forefront of the challenge is Google and its increasingly sophisticated web-based office applications. Gmail was the first, but now documents, spreadsheets and web pages can all be created using online applications available to you wherever there is a web connection. It's fast, easy to use and flexible; what began as a novelty is fast becoming a serious proposition.

Documents can also be published to the web and edited by others collaborating on the same project, anywhere in the world. Most worrying for Microsoft must be the pace of development at Google. With broadband speed up too, there is little downside to using Google apps, as opposed to traditional PC-based software.

The big change that this foreshadows is this: if you don't need PC-based software, you may not need a PC at all. Google apps don't need a PC to work; they are just as happy working on anything capable of running a compatible web browser, whether that be an iPhone, PDA or an as yet unseen whizzy new 'convergent device'.

T-Mobile's Shirley believes that in a service-oriented economy like the UK, businesses need to go to the customer, and need to be available all the time. Nine-to-five working is no longer enough. Some businesses, he says, will be able to dispense with fixed premises altogether.

One reason is the rapid adoption of mobile 3G broadband, which all five of the major mobile phone firms are offering at ever more competitive prices and speeds. Laptop users can go online anywhere there is a 3G signal - which now covers most of the population.

3G mobile broadband is likely to get faster (up to 10 Mbps) and may yet replace wi-fi as the gold standard for on-the-road web access. The next step is likely to be 3G wireless routers for home and office. 'We are seeing take-up of this and will be launching a router,' says Shirley.

Just over the horizon is femtocell technology, which T-Mobile and other carriers are keeping an eye on. Femtocells are miniature cellular base stations that piggyback onto wireless networks to boost the mobile signal and the sound quality of voice calls - its developers claim voice quality is so good that in the future it won't sound any different from speaking directly to someone in the same room.

Of course, it's a new technology and the IT industry is famous for making rash promises that it then struggles to deliver. Not all these big ideas will come to pass. But they are indicative of the way the idea of working anytime, anywhere is only going to get easier and more accepted. We are all going to have to do some hard thinking about how available, and for how much of the time, we really need to be.

- Paul Fisher wrote this article at home, in an office and in an airport lounge. He used wi-fi, 3G networks and the Google documents suite


In its continuing fight to save lives, the Kent Fire and Rescue Service uses mobile data technology to co-ordinate information between its 65 stations and numerous crews. Each fire engine is equipped with a wi-fi and GPRS-enabled PC unit. When vehicles are on standby in the fire station, updates are downloaded via wi-fi. These can include vital intelligence on sites where hazardous materials are stored, or the operational status of fire hydrants - not something paper maps have been good at.

Says John McGonigal, the organisation's information services strategic development manager: 'In the past, crews had to spend time looking for a working hydrant.'

While out on a call, the PC switches to either the O2 or Vodafone GPRS mobile network to provide real-time updates on what are often rapidly changing, life-threatening situations. 'Being able to use two networks ensures reliable coverage,' he explains.

The system uses the fire service's bespoke communication protocol, GD92. A Tom-Tom satnav is fully integrated, so directions are available, useful when crews work beyond their particular patch - large fires can involve appliances from all over the county. 'The crews need accurate data, both to do their job and to keep themselves safe,' says McGonigal.

The system is based on Afaria software from SyBase iAnywhere, chosen because it can update information in real time. It is fitted to 60 of its 100-strong fleet. 'When we have installed it on all our vehicles,' he adds, 'we will eliminate the paper back-ups. That will save a lot of admin.'


As the CEO of BT Directories, David Benjamin might be expected to exploit mobile technology, but he has embraced it with an almost evangelical zeal.

'All my management team are home workers and a large proportion of non-management positions are remote as well,' he says. Benjamin claims that the use of mobile technology within BT encourages remote working in general, but his department has taken up such tools as BT Meet Me and LiveLink, which make mobile collaboration easy across IP-based networks. Benjamin, who previously worked at Guardian Media Group, says: 'This is the first time I've worked for an organisation that actively encourages remote working.'

So much so that Benjamin has now organised the commercial and development activities of BT Directories around a 9am 'all-hands call' every Friday. All his 1,500 employees join what must be one of the biggest conference calls in the UK, and as well as taking a healthcheck on the business and his direct reports, it's an opportunity for all staff to get things off their chest. 'There's a good half-hour's questioning as well each week,' he says. 'It's not a replacement for all meetings - strategic sessions are still face-to-face - but it makes you a more efficient and effective organisation.'

To take part, his team need little more than a laptop and a broadband connection; everything else is down to the efficacy of BT's 'functional and rich' intranet. Among other admin functions, it can be used to measure staff performance though BT's Scorecard appraisal system. 'Every quarter, staff are measured on their delivery and output - not on how they did it,' explains Benjamin. It's all logged and managed online. 'I can't remember the last time I printed something off,' he adds.

As befits such an enthusiastic advocate of Web 2.0 tools, Benjamin is launching two multi-platform websites that will embrace these ideas. One, part of the rebranding of the BT Phone Book products, is a beta site called, where search enquiries can be combined with messaging and mapping services.

The other, BT Tradespace, is a social network for small traders which will endeavour to match potential customers to traders via reputation and feedback tools. -;

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